For professionals in the world of learning and development, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a global shift in our delivery of educational solutions, requiring many training organizations to quickly devise new strategies to support continuity of employee learning. As such, flexibility has become an essential feature of professional development offerings.

In order to adapt to the ever-changing needs of employees who are juggling the evolving conditions of their professional and personal lives, learning designers can leverage the benefits of flexibility in their creation of training programs to address these needs. Flexible learning design can be operationalized in a number of ways.

Barbara Lockee
Author: Barbara Lockee, Ph.D.

Flexibility in Where

Given the almost immediate need to transition training operations to remote delivery earlier this year, the most common notion of flexibility has already been implemented, providing online access to allow the learning opportunities can be completed from a safe and convenient location. Since many learning organizations have been offering e-learning or blended learning for a while, the shift from face-to-face instruction to online training programs was a logical first response to the need for greater flexibility. Offerings that are optimized for mobile learning can enhance portability for the user, increasing options as to the location of learning engagement. The ability to participate in modules or courses across devices is an added advantage, as the need may arise to change locations multiple times across the learning experience.

Flexibility in When

Additional flexibility may be gained through the adoption of different delivery approaches that reduce the restrictions related to the time of learning. While synchronous programs may replicate the kinds of group-based experiences found in classroom-based instruction, asynchronous strategies add another layer of flexibility, permitting employees to work on learning tasks at any time. Because such delivery methods can be designed for 24/7 availability, asynchronous courses can help to address the frequently changing nature of schedules and plans. Allowing learners to start, stop, and re-start at their convenience can help to ensure the completion of programs that may otherwise not be possible, given the constantly changing nature of personal and professional demands throughout the day.

Flexibility in How

Providing learners with experiences that reflect a variety of different delivery formats is an effective strategy to support continued engagement through presentation modes that connect with learner preferences. Promote interest and motivation with the use of videos, podcasts, and interactive multimedia activities as a supplement to text-based content. Flexible content design and delivery option choices can help with reinforcement of key concepts by leveraging the evidence-based psychological principles of how people learn through various forms of information.

Flexibility in What

Empowering learners with choice about what topics they learn and the sequence in which they learn them is another way to add flexibility to training offerings. Current trends toward micro-learning, breaking content into smaller, more manageable units that can be re-organized and re-purposed to meet varying learner needs in flexible ways, illustrate alternative strategies to allow learners to access and complete targeted content. Curated repositories of educational resources that vary by topic, scope, and format represent another approach that provides flexibility in terms of learner choice. Even required programming, such as compliance training, can be organized into a catalog of smaller units and formats that provide options for program completion.

Implementation Considerations

In considering ways to enhance the flexibility of your organization’s learning programs, it’s important to note that features and design approaches that add flexibility for some learners may actually pose constraints for others. For example, adding synchronous conferencing sessions may permit learners to participate in such events from home, but may be challenging due to other network and technology demands of family members simultaneously engaging in work and school activities. Making recordings available for later access and a post-completion assessment is one way to help overcome such issues, if the content and requirements allow.

Also, when learning activities become more flexible, learners must take on a greater level of responsibility for their participation and completion of instructional programs. It is a natural inclination for busy employees to postpone learning engagement due to countless demands during the day, especially if the activities are asynchronous and always readily available. Setting deadlines for course or program completion, creating “learning contracts,” and having regular check-ins on progress are possible strategies to help keep learners on track toward reaching learning and performance goals.

Through the provision of options about where, when, how, and what employees chose to learn, employees can overcome some of the time and place obstacles presented by the current COVID-19 pandemic context. Flexible learning strategies can help ensure that training opportunities are future-forward, providing the means to support learning goals and continuing professional growth during these extraordinarily challenging times.

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